Vice President of India Mohammad Hamid Ansari, April 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/Press Association. All rights reserved. As India marks 70 years of independence today (August 15), two events of the past week illustrate the predicament a country that often preens itself as the world’s largest democracy finds itself in.
One was a vitriolic and graceless speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a farewell ceremony for Mohammad Hamid Ansari, who was stepping down after two terms as Vice-President. The other a prominent television anchor declaring that a panellist’s mention of the deaths of dozens of children in a hospital in Uttar Pradesh state was an attempt to divert attention from the real issue, which in her opinion was the rectitude of the state government’s order to Muslim schools to celebrate Independence Day with the recitation of a nationalist song entitled Vande Mataram (salute the motherland).
Modi said in his speech in Hindi (translation taken from thewire.in) addressing Ansari in the Rajya Sabha, the Indian parliament’s upper house which the Vice-President chairs:
“Your life was that of a career diplomat. I understood what being a career diplomat means only after becoming prime minister. Because the way they smile, the way they shake their hands has a meaning which a novice may not understand immediately. They are trained to do that. But that skill must have been useful for you in the last 10 years. Your skill must have benefitted the house in trying to manage contrarian voices within it.
“In your career as a diplomat, you spent most of your time in West Asia. You spent most of your life in that single circle, that environment, that way of thinking, among those people. Even after retirement, your work was similar, whether it be in the minorities commission or Aligarh Muslim University. More or less, your circle remained the same.
“But in the last 10 years, you had a different responsibility. Every minute, you had to work within the limitations of the constitution. And you worked to the best of your abilities. It is possible that you must have encountered restlessness in the process. But after today, you will not have to face even that dilemma. You will experience freedom and will be able to work, speak, and think according to what you really feel.”
By West Asia, the area generally referred to in western media as ‘the Middle East’, Modi meant Muslim countries. He neglected noting that Ansari had also served in other places such as Australia and that he had been a very active Permanent Representative of India in the United Nations before retiring as a diplomat. Modi also failed to mention that Ansari has served as ceremonial president of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the Indian Council of World Affairs and other such bodies.
Modi’s clear attempt to depict the much respected former diplomat and scholar as someone steeped in a Muslim “circle” was breath-taking in its venality rarely matched by heads of governments or states.
Then again, Modi was clearly waiting to tick Ansari off for thinly veiled criticism of his government. Asked in an interview whether he had shared concerns over growing intolerance in India, Ansari said he had and when pressed as to whether he was satisfied with the response, said obliquely “Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason. Now it is a matter of judgment, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale.”
A few days earlier, in a convocation speech at the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, Ansari said: “For many decades after independence, a pluralist view of nationalism and Indianness reflective of the widest possible circle of inclusiveness and a ‘salad bowl’ approach, characterised our thinking. More recently an alternate viewpoint of ‘purifying exclusivism’ has tended to intrude into and take over the political and cultural landscape. One manifestation of it is ‘an increasingly fragile national ego’ that threatens to rule out any dissent however innocent. Hyper-nationalism and the closing of the mind is also ‘a manifestation of insecurity about one’s place in the world.’”
This was an unmistakable dig at the kind of polity ushered in by Modi since his Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party came to head the central government in New Delhi in mid-2014. Of a piece with this style of governance, Modi chose as Chief Minister of the most populous state, a Hindu supremacist politician named Adityanath who has headed a militia named Hindu Yuva Vahini (youth brigade) that has been implicated in incidents of violence against Muslims.
It was Adityanath’s order for Muslim schools known as madrasas to celebrate Independence Day and provide proof thereof by video-recording the events that Times Now television channel anchor Navika Kumar was dealing with. She objected, during a panel discussion on prime time she was chairing, to the raising of the deaths of children in Adityanath’s own parliamentary constituency, Gorakhpur. About 70 deaths from encephalitis have occurred in a hospital there. A reference to these deaths on the leading television channel – a hyper-nationalist and Hindu supremacist version of Fox News – was what its anchor was objecting to.
It encapsulated in a few moments, along with Modi’s venom-filled speech, all that has gone wrong with India over the past 70 years. Instead of emerging as a vibrant, modern democracy, it is being led down an antediluvian path towards medieval bigotry.